Earlier this month, I ran my first ultramarathon, the Algonquin 50K on Maryland’s Eastern Shore! It was a hell of an experience and I accomplished my two main goals of having fun and finishing in one piece. As someone who swore FOR YEARS that I would never go beyond 26.2, I still can’t believe I did it!
I signed up for it basically on a whim last summer, and was promptly put on a waitlist – the race sells out very quickly every year. Then, last fall, I commented on Vanessa with She Runs By The Seashore’s post on Instagram about the race and mentioned that I was on the waitlist. The race director (dictator? At least that’s what his emails said, haha!) saw it and found a spot for me. I accepted it, knowing that it was 2.5 months before Boston and deciding to just go for it anyway.
I am happy I did!
Trail running vs. road running
While I am an experienced road runner, trail running is relatively new to me. I’ve run Rip It’s Little Patuxent River Run, both the 10K and the half, for many years and that takes place on a trail. And then I’ve run the Bigfoot Endurance trail run, both the 10 miler and the 5 miler. But that’s it. I love the idea of running through the woods, but I am clumsy and the potential for injuries always scares me. So I knew I needed to invest in some trail shoes, start practicing on trails more, and just commit to the idea that I was going to be a lot slower on trails than on the road. I joined my friend Danny, who is a very experienced ultramarathoner, on some practice runs several times throughout January and that got my confidence up. Training for ALQ overlapped a bit with the beginning of my Boston Marathon training plan, but that worked out fine. I actually ran a 20 miler (on a paved trail) the weekend before my Boston training officially started, and I joked this was the first time I would begin marathon training with a 20 miler under my belt.
I’d heard trail running is a completely different vibe from road running – that ultras are less intense, it’s not really about your time, and that ultra runners have a “we’re all in this together” mentality, rather than a competitive attitude. Oh, and that the aid stations are decked out with all kinds of delicious food. All of that sounded great. Especially the food part!
Still, I was nervous. The last thing I wanted was to get injured before Boston. I also had no idea how I’d feel running for 31+ miles (my Garmin logged 32 miles at the end of the race!)
Micah and I headed out to the Eastern Shore Friday afternoon before the race so I could pick up my race bib and swag. The bib pickup was held at a place called Hopper’s Tavern, so we got some food and beers there – I got my old standby, a veggie burger and fries! – and then headed to our AirBnB in Snow Hill. The AirBnB was about 5 miles from the start line, so I figured that would be nice and convenient.
When I woke up on race morning, it was 15 degrees, but thankfully, the nasty wind from the day before had died down. I got dressed in running tights, a long-sleeved shirt, a jacket, neck gaiter, gloves with Hot Hands, and a hat. It ended up being fine and I was never too cold or too hot. Micah drove me to the start and we really cut it close– because we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, my Google Maps wasn’t working great and it took us to a location that was about a mile from the actual start. Luckily, we found some volunteers with the race and they pointed us in the right direction. I made it there with about 4 minutes to spare, which did not help my anxiety one bit. I hate being late!
The first few miles were on a narrow part of the trail, so for the most part we were all running single file. I didn’t even make it two miles before I bit it on a tree root, even though I was trying to run cautiously! I wasn’t hurt – just a skinned knee – and got back up with no problem. Another friend of mine who has run a bunch of ultras, including 100 milers, told me ALQ wasn’t that technical. I beg to differ, but again, I’m a newbie. The whole trail was very flat, which made it great for beginners!
I’ve been told, and have seen plenty of pictures that prove it, that ALQ is usually a muddy ass mess, with standing water in some parts of the course. But because it was so cold, everything was frozen and dry. Some other runners joked that I wasn’t getting the full ALQ experience, but since this was my first ultra…. I was OK with that!
The first 5 or so miles passed quickly. I chatted with other runners, one of whom was running her 5th ALQ! She said she had never done a road marathon before and was planning to run one so we talked about that. I kept the pace very easy (I think probably in the 11s) and just tried to focus on not falling and enjoying the scenery. There was an aid station at mile 4, which ended up being the only one I didn’t stop at, just because I didn’t feel like I needed to. I had Maurten gels with me (6 total) and ended up taking all by one of them throughout the race, plus snacking on Smith Island Cake — Maryland’s official state dessert! — at the aid stations.
I ran with my friend Gretchen for a while and she had a nasty fall at the 15K mark, right around the part of the race that’s usually a giant mud pit. She finished the race, but found out later she fractured her wrist! I am truly so happy to have made it through injury free, as I am klutzy (hello, I literally fell in the Boston Marathon last year.)
The first aid station I stopped at was mile 10. I was pretty excited to grab a piece of red velvet Smith Island Cake. In marathons, I always grab a water or Gatorade from the stations and keep on truckin’, but I had been told that it’s typical in ultras to stop for a few minutes at the aid stations and eat. So, that’s what I did! I was so fixated on the cake that I didn’t even notice Micah was standing there. I had told him before the race there probably wouldn’t be any place to spectate, but somehow he found his way to the mile 10 point. I was so happy to see him!
After enjoying my cake, I went off on my way again. Everything was feeling good!
At around mile 12, I fell again, but luckily this fall was even more benign than the last. I guess I fell into a soft surface! I think the next aid station I stopped at was around mile 15 or 16 – I stopped to pee and get more Smith Island Cake. The volunteers at all of the aid stations were SO amazing! At every one, they were like, “What do you need? What can we get you?” Truly the best and kindest volunteers I’ve ever encountered at a race!
At this point of the race, the course veered off to the right and into the woods for maybe another 3 miles until we hit the turnaround. It felt great to hit that point of the race and know that I was past the halfway point! The mile 16 aid station also served as the aid station somewhere around mile 20, as well, so you know I stopped and grabbed, you guessed it, more Smith Island Cake. As far as my gels went, I did what I do in marathons and took them at miles 4, 8, 13, 18, and 21. I was going to take another one at mile 26, but by that point I’d had even more cake and felt like I was all sugared out. LOL.
Once I hit mile 20, I knew I had about 12 miles left. Technically, 50K is 31 miles, but I was told the distance wasn’t exact and I was likely to run about 32 miles when all was said and done. I was getting tired, but told myself I run 12 miles all the time. During peak marathon training, that’s, like, a typical Wednesday. No big deal, right?
Around mile 23, I started running with another runner, Jen, who was running her third ALQ. We ended up keeping each other company through most of the rest of the race. She told me that the course was the dryest she’d ever seen it and said when she ran in 2021, when the weather was horrible, she could barely see where she was on the trail. I guess I really lucked out!
There was a sign at the mile 26.2(ish) mark that said “you just finished a marathon!”, which made me smile. I think that was the part of the race that was on a long, mostly smooth stretch of trail. I had pulled a little bit ahead of Jen and there were only like two other runners in sight. I had told Micah I would call him when I was around mile 28 or 29, so once I got to the final aid station, I saw there was a sign that said 5K to go. But I knew that was probably more like 4 miles. I called him and told him where I was and he said, “OK, I’m near the finish line! I’ll see you in a few minutes!” I laughed and said it was going to be taking me longer than a few minutes! I think my miles at that point were in the 11-13 minute range.
And yeah, those last few miles were a slog. Jen caught back up to me and had a bad fall shortly after that last aid station, but got back up again quickly. She said she had fallen 5 times throughout the race. I was lucky to only fall twice. This part of the trail was super rooty and rocky and I was very much watching my footing. I had wanted to take a shot of Fireball at one of the last aid stations, because of course I did, but decided to do the responsible thing because I knew I was getting tired and fatigue + a buzz + rough terrain didn’t sound like it was going to set me up for success in those final miles. Look at me making good decisions!
When my watch beeped at 30 miles, I knew the finish line was near. I was more than ready to be done by then, but kept patiently trucking along. Really, those final two miles were kind of a blur. At one point, we crossed a road and then headed toward the field where the start/finish was. Jen told me to look for the flags lining the finishers chute and head toward them, so that’s what I did. After 6 hours and 15 minutes of running, I crossed the finish line and was awarded my prized finishers mug. Micah was waiting for me at the end and he directed me toward the nice food spread in the pavilion, where there was also a roaring fire going. I wasn’t super hungry, but I enjoyed some hot Maryland crab soup, a beer, and yes, more cake.
We hung out for a while and chatted with other runners before heading back to the other side of the Bay Bridge.
Even though I said I didn’t care about my time, and I really didn’t, of course I was curious to see how I ranked among the other runners. It turned out I finished 18th female out of (I think) around 100, and that surprised me. I did much better than I thought I would.
My mom asked me if I would do another ultra, and I think I would! I still am gun shy about falling and injuring myself, but I did have fun, even when it got hard. The trail running community is so supportive and cool. And if I haven’t mentioned it enough in this blog – CAKE.
If you’re looking to try out the ultra distance for the first time, I highly recommend the Algonquin 50K. Not only is it a flat course, it’s extremely well-organized and the swag is fantastic. Truly a great trail ultra!